Winter presents a unique set of problems for homebuyers. On top of a slowed-down market, they have to navigate wintry road conditions and a more challenging home inspection process.
We spoke with James Brock, owner of Boston Home Inspectors, about some of the things that make his job more interesting during the winter. Brock has been inspecting homes with his family-owned business since 1996. Here are some of the pros and cons of inspecting homes when snow, ice, and cold are factors.
Two or three inches of snow can create visibility issues. “We’re standing outside the home and a homeowner is asking what you think of the condition of the roof,’’ Brock said. “ ‘It looks good with two inches of snow on it, white and crisp. I don’t know what else to tell you.’ ’’ You can’t see the shingles or condition of the roof. In a situation like this, the only option is to wait until the snow melts.
Snow gets piled against the house both naturally and when shoveling. This can make it impossible to see the foundation.
Deep snow can make it hard to get a good look under a porch. “You have to shovel the snow out of the way so you can crawl under the porch,’’ Brock said. “You’re wet and full of snow and have to go into the house afterward.’’
Frozen wood, pipes, and windows
Home inspectors have a poker they use to poke wood on the outside to see if there’s damage from termites or carpenter ants. This gets more challenging in the winter, when water freezes on porches. “You poke it and it’s like poking an ice cube,’’ Brock said. “You have to have the experience to know the difference. You hit it and it shouldn’t sound that way. Maybe it’s because water got in and is frozen, so it doesn’t sound the same as a regular piece of wood.’’
Pipes and windows can also freeze. A frozen pipe can hide potential leaking problems you’ll have down the road. Frozen pipes can also crack, leading to new leaks. Frozen windows, caused when rain gets in the window track and freezes, can be hard to open and close.
It can be hard to find termites and carpenter ants during the colder months. “They go dormant,’’ Brock said. “During the winter, you tend to find less insect activity than you do during the summer. But it doesn’t mean the property doesn’t have it.’’
You can’t test the air conditioning on a day when outdoor temperatures are below 60 degrees. “A lot of buyers are unaware of that,’’ Brock said. “We have to explain to them that the parts are there, but there’s no way to know if it works. We could damage the AC if it’s turned on below 60.’’
On the other hand, one benefit of seeing a home in the winter is the opportunity to test the heat. In the summer, it can be difficult to turn the heat on. Brock deals with this by putting a damp washcloth on the thermostat, triggering a false reading and turning the heat on.
Balancing the heat is also easier. “You can tell which room is cold,’’ Brock said. “During the summer when it’s 70 out and you’re running the heat, all the rooms are warm. It’s hard to tell if the rooms are balanced or not.’’
This possible benefit can be a problem in a foreclosed house where the heat has been turned off. “You show up and it’s actually colder in the house than it is outside,’’ Brock said. This can be an uncomfortable situation for unprepared buyers.
Drafts and insulation
If the heat is working, it’s good to keep it indoors. This is easier to check for in the winter, Brock said. “Attic insulation and floor insulation in the attic is pretty easy to spot. You can tell where the cold air is coming from,’’ he said. “In the summer, attics are 120 to 140 degrees. You can’t tell how well the insulation is doing.’’
It’s also easier to find small spots where cold is entering your house. “The good thing about the winter is you can check for drafts very easily,’’ Brock said. “You can put your hand there and feel it.’’
Brock does half as many inspections in the winter as in summer. The slowed down market is partly to blame. There are also fewer hours in the day to work. “In the summer, we can start an inspection at 5 in the evening because it stays light until 7:30,’’ Brock said. “In the winter, you can’t start an inspection after 3 because it gets dark too fast. your work day shortens up a little.’’
On top of that, inspections take longer in the winter. It is harder to drive and park on snow-covered streets. More time is spent removing heavy winter coats and boots. And it’s harder to identify potential problems with the house.
Winter weather presents a series of challenges for the outdoor note-taker. In particularly cold temperatures, the pen’s ink can freeze. Brock keeps two pens on hand to deal with this possibility. Rain and snow can the paper wet, causing it to tear or the ink to run.